Sunday, September 20, 2009

Owls, Owls, Owls

Yesterday evening my husband and I went on an owl walk at one of the local Metroparks. After an interesting and informative talk about owls, their habits and their habitats, the group headed down to a clearing near both woods and the Huron River. The leader of the group pulled out her i-pod and played recordings of screech owl calls. (Isn't modern technology great! Her i-pod may not have rap or even the Beatles, but it has nature sounds of all sorts.) The calls were interesting but the only wildlife that reacted were some cardinals who sent out a warning that danger was nearby. After the cardinals left the area, we kept listening to the recorded calls and watched the sky. All we saw were happy bats scooping up insects by the mouthful. The kids in the group were getting bored as we waited and waited. About 8:00 another ploy was tried. The i-pod sent out calls of a great horned owl, a lower, rumbling call almost alike a dog barking in the distance. Soon there was a reply from a horned owl somewhere off in the distance. The owl called a few times but lost interest in our calls--perhaps they were not as realistic sounding as we believed. Just as those of us who had stayed in the rapidly chilling night longer than we had planned were thinking that it was time to give up, someone pointed at the sky and followed a silent shadow as it flew to a nearby branch. The leader soon focused her powerful flashlight on a barred owl who had thoughtfully placed himself in perfect position for us to get a good look. He did not seem scared but did not look at the light often or for very long. He sat in perfect view for a several minutes and then spread his large wings and silently disappeared into the woods. Those few minutes made the evening a success for all of us on the walk.

As we walked back to our car, I began thinking of the many great books about owls. Let me start with my very favorite, Owls in the Family by Farley Mowat. As a boy growing up on the plains of Saskatchewan, Mowat found and raised two great horned owls. This book is a fictionalized telling of the adventures of boys and their owls, based on his own memories. At times these tales are just plain hilarious--as when one of the owls follows him to school. In other parts of the books you will find some fascinating facts about owls. I confess that I cry at the ending every time I read this book. It is written for upper elementary, but, as I found with my own daughters, it makes a great read aloud for younger children. When my girls needed camp nicknames when they helped me be a counselor at Girl Scout day camp, they chose Wol and Weeps, the names of the two owls in this book. Mowat wrote many great books of adventure and life. There are three other of his books, written for young adult/adult readers, are also prominent on my list of favorite books. Check out The Dog Who Wouldn't Be for memories of Mowat's favorite childhood dog. It is another story that will make you cry from laughing and cry from the sadness. (Yes, it is a dog story with the all too common dog story ending.) Lost in the Barrens and Never Cry Wolf are adventure and nature stories of the highest caliber, based on Mowat's adventures exploring Canada's far north.

If you are looking for owls in a picture book, try one of these. Little Hoot by Amy Krause Rosenthal is about a little owl who just wants to go bed early. Kids love this twist on their desire to stay up late. Little Hoot proclaims that he will let his kids go to bed at any time they choose. Owl Babies by Martin Waddell and Patrick Benson has some of the most endearing pictures of owls that I have ever seen. Elf Owl by Mary and Conrad Buff was a favorite of mine when I was young. It was published in 1958 and is now hard to find. I honestly do not remember the story, but the cover illustration of a little owl peering out of a saguaro cactus is still clear in my mind.

There are some classics in the easy reader genre that feature owls: Sam and the Firefly by P.D. Eastman and Owl at Home by Arnold Lobel are stories that never grow old because of their subtle humor and well-told stories.

There is an Owl in the Shower by Jean Craighead George is somewhat similar to Owls in the Family. It also recounts stories based on human interactions with owls living in the house. George is an expert at sharing her love of nature in an interesting and appealing manner.

Carl Haissen takes a different route to encourage elementary and middle school age readers to appreciate nature. He wrote a mystery novel with lots of humor and pleas for taking care of owls in Hoot. Readers solve the mystery both of the owls and of how to fit in as the new kid at school.

There are too many wonderfully illustrated, fact-filled non-fiction on owls for me to cover them here. Make a trip to your library and look at them all to find some that have the information that fits your needs.

Finally, find a copy of The Owl and Pussycat by Edward Lear and read it just for the pure fun of it. Many illustrators have put their stamp on this classic nonsense poem. You will have to decide for yourself which ones fit your image of the tale.

Next time you are outside at dusk, keep your eyes open for an owl sighting. If you do not see one, read one of these books. If you do see one, you will enjoy these books even more.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Slaying the Dragon

The start of the school year can be something like slaying a dragon. You enter the doors and the quest begins. It does not seem to matter how prepared you thought you were. The excitement, the nerves, the things you have actually forgotten soon overtake you. Because you are a dragon slayer, you carry on, slashing at the problems and hoarding the successes. Soon the successes, the joy of reuniting with friends, and the clock bring you to the end of the day, reinvigorated and ready to face the next day and the one after that. The year begins and you are ready.

It has been a good start for the new library facility. Teacher, parents, and, most importantly, students have poured into the library and scattered praise into every corner. They walk in the doors--yes, those are new, as in we have never before had doors--and generally stop to take a deep breath. The usual response is along the line of those that came from girls I never saw to identify but I am guessing they are in middle school. "Look! It's, like, OMG!" So far the new library is working well. The students are finding the books they want and, amazingly, so am I (Most of the time). If you are in the area, be sure to come to the grand dedication on October 2. There will be some surprises waiting for you even if you have already dropped by to see it.

There are some new books in the library, as well. To bring this post full circle let me mention just one of them. Babymouse: Dragonslayer is the latest in a series by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm, a brother and sister team who have created a new graphic novel heroine. Babymouse is something of a Walter Mitty in little, pink, mouse clothing. She has a vivid imagination that helps her solve the problems of life as an elementary school student. In this story, her math teacher offers the option of accepting a poor grade or joining the math competition team. She reluctantly heads off to become a mathlete even though she feels she has no talent--and certainly no love--for math. On the way she has an interaction with characters from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. They help inspire her but don't necessarily help her math skills. Will she help the team regain the golden slide rule? Is she the person of good heart that the prophecy said was coming to save the team? Will she ever understand math? The humor in this book will appeal to older readers (parents and teachers will enjoy it, I promise) while emergent readers will enjoy the energy and the graphics even if they miss a few of the math jokes and references to classic works of fantasy.

Whatever your dragons, go forth and conquer them. Have a great start to the new school year.